Tom Cruise and The Dying Nature of Movie Stars
No other actor was a bigger superstar throughout the mid-80s and into the 2000s than Tom Cruise. From 1986 to 2008, 14 of the 23 films that Cruise headlined both grossed over $100 million dollars at the domestic box office and at least $200 million worldwide. Cruise filled his filmography with a variety of dramas, comedies and action films, which resulted in a stardom that was equal to a supernova. All it took for ticket receipts to already be printed was for a film to paste his name across the marketing campaign. He sustained a blockbuster franchise in Mission: Impossible, while also having the flexibility to do any project he wanted, and the likelihood of success remained incredibly high. However, Cruise’s good fortune has somewhat slowed in the last four years. Since 2010, he has starred in six films, with only one (Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol) crossing the $100 million mark in the United States. Cruise’s shrinking numbers are indicative of a growing trend throughout Hollywood.
The era in which actors like Tom Cruise can single-handedly guarantee a blockbuster’s success is essentially over. At the time of this writing, Cruise’s most recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, is closing in on $300 million worldwide on a budget of $178 million (not counting marketing costs and any other expenses). While this film cannot be considered a total failure, it’s definitely not what Warner Bros. was hoping it would accomplish when they signed off on production. Subsequently, the relative failure of this film, along with other similar missteps, has proven that studios can no longer cast a big-name actor to a film and expect their name to propel it to huge box office profitability. Currently, the over-saturation of the market by comic book films, remakes of older properties, and other franchises has relegated actors as a complement in a movie rather than its star. Ultimately, the nature of franchises in Hollywood has diminished the idea of selling a film on a just an actor’s name and instead made it more of a focus on the type of property being sold.
Edge of Tomorrow, despite it being a genuinely refreshing, funny and exciting film, is a significant underachievement because audiences did not see it as having anything significant to sell to them besides the performances of Tom Cruise and a sidekick in Emily Blunt. It tried to appeal with its fascinating premise of reliving the same day over and over, yet all audiences gauged from the marketing leading up to its release was a standard action movie set in a typical future setting. As a result, Edge of Tomorrow faltered in its opening weekend and all the ads since its premiere have tried to tout the wave of positive reviews that were given in response to it, with the hope that it would be enough to draw reluctant audiences in. Unfortunately, people did not see anything special about the film and instead decided to retreat to the traditional fare of standard properties, such as popular superheroes or famous monsters.
Audiences have proven that they enjoy, and ultimately prefer, familiarity when heading to the theater. Despite terrific reviews and very strong word-of-mouth, Edge of Tomorrow’s box office performance highlights the most bitter irony in Hollywood today: that audiences complain so much about too many franchises in the market and not enough smart options, yet not going to see a truly terrific and different film when that choice is present. Therefore, for most big-name actors, the best chance at huge box office success in today’s Hollywood landscape is for them to join an established property or continue milking profit from an older series. This is why movies like the Mission: Impossible series, the Men in Black franchise, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films (among others as well) continue being made. Not only do they carry the nostalgia from audience members who have seen the oldest entries, but they allow for that same audience to transition in a younger and newer demographic through kids or younger siblings. They also give audiences exactly the type of experience they know they are going to receive. While at first it may have been that actors were the most important factor, the continuations of these types of films show that an actor’s name no longer makes the franchise; instead, the franchise makes the actor.
Film series give actors the chance to promote themselves more so than they can in anything else, and it gives them the ability to stay sustainable for longer portions of their careers. Chris Pratt, for example, is someone who is a fan favorite on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation and as a result, is now the lead in both the upcoming Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy and next year’s Jurassic World. The opportunity that he receives by being a part of those films is more significant than one of those films managing to cast him. They could have easily signed another person to those same roles. Back in the day, studios were clamoring to get men like Tom Cruise and Will Smith to headline their projects. Now, actors such as those hold out to receive a phone call asking them to headline the next big franchise.
Combining a high-concept film with a quality actor is what makes big names stay relevant. Ultimately, the character that they are playing creates a popularity for the actor more so than the other way around. Robert Downey Jr., for example, has shown over the years that he is a fantastic actor, yet his current mainstream success is due to the Iron Man franchise and the exposure that the character now has around the globe. The thought of an actor like him playing an arrogant billionaire who becomes a superhero is what entices people to buy tickets. Another example of a high-concept film merging with a high quality actor is Angelina Jolie and Maleficent. Disney sold the film on the idea of having it be the untold story of the classic animated villain and that villain being played by Jolie. The film, as a result, is well on its way to surpass $500 million worldwide. The norm now is that no actor is above the property they are representing; they are merely another ingredient that contributes to the overall success.
Along with Tom Cruise, other actors face these similar issues as well. For example, Will Smith has seen his stardom shrink by a large margin since the mid-to-late 2000s. Smith is known for propelling a drama in The Pursuit of Happyness, a romantic comedy in Hitch and an action flick in I, Robot each to over $300 million in worldwide ticket sales. He even sold audiences on an alcoholic and run-down superhero with Hancock to the tune of $624 million worldwide. His most recent film, though, After Earth, was a significant box office failure. Furthermore, with the failures of Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows and The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp is another example of a fading star. This is not to say that these men are in danger of completely disappearing, but rather, that to generate success and remain in the public eye, they now need franchises and/or well-known properties to shoot them back up because of the shift from the previous Hollywood star system to its current one.
The way the Hollywood star system previously worked was that an actor would headline a project and then, as a sign of good faith by the studio, be granted the funding and time necessary to do a smaller, more meaningful project; this was otherwise known as a “one for them” and “one for me” approach. This gave an actor the ability to develop an image as both a box office champion and a dramatic thespian. Tom Cruise and Will Smith, for example, managed to achieve this balance as evidenced by Cruise’s three Academy Award nominations and Smith’s two Academy Award nominations among their bounty of box office successes. Studios were more than willing to give them the occasional time off to do a smaller project as long as they would return to headline their next big money maker. However, while the “one for them” and “one for me” approach still exists, the current Hollywood system does not allow for the same type of balance.
The continued emphasis studios place on preexisting properties makes sure that actors are no longer a premium. Franchise films go into pre-production and get scheduled for release long before they can even figure out a damn title for the movie. Summer dates on the calendar are filled years in advance, with a comic book property in one spot, a reboot of a 30-year-old franchise two weeks later and another film in a long-running series the week after that. It essentially amounts to a competition of egos between studios as to who can plant their flag first. In consequence, actors are forced to acquiesce to these demands because they are playing by the studio’s rules, not the other way around. Actors play the same character for many consecutive years, with minimal (if any) time to do any other project . They sign multi-year contracts, despite the fact that the term “multi-year” can be an ironic phrase on its own. The moment a studio blockbuster fails, an actor’s chance at box office stardom is done and the company then tries to figure out how to reboot the franchise as soon as possible (*cough, Green Lantern, *cough).
However, this is not to say that there are no longer any actors who can single-handedly power a film to success. Leonardo DiCaprio has proven repeatedly that he draws in audiences. While his grosses have never matched the heights of men like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, most of his films have been very profitable. DiCaprio has continuously challenged himself with each new role and generated a fair amount of revenue for each of his films, while also cultivating a successful niche among audiences that prefer more dramatic fare. He’s become an exception to the dying trend of big-name Hollywood actors that are able to promote immediate interest and success for any film that they do, no matter the subject. This brings the up the question of whether or not it is it better for actors to aim for critical acclaim and success within that niche rather than trying to become a massive box office star that appeals to everyone. It may help if actors become more selective with their roles and stop trying to achieve the universal success that stars of previous generations achieved.
By choosing to do smaller films, actors can still use their image as an advantage. Leonardo DiCaprio understands that his name can sell tickets. Unlike the previous examples of Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie, DiCaprio is not a complement to a franchise or other big Hollywood entity. His films are sold on the idea of a well-known actor like him playing a particular character, as opposed to the Hollywood franchise standard of a well-known character being played by a particular actor. This set-up gives DiCaprio the upper hand in projects because he then becomes imperative to their success. It may not be at the same scale of what Tom Cruise and Will Smith experienced many years ago, but it is the closest thing there is in the film industry today.
Another actor who is similar to Leonardo DiCaprio in how he handles the current Hollywood system is Daniel Day-Lewis. The anticipation of waiting for Daniel Day Lewis’ next piece of work is almost as exciting as the actual performance itself. In his last eight films, he has received four Academy Award nominations, with two wins, which speaks to the quality of acting that Day-Lewis brings forth with each performance, along with the importance he places on picking the right projects. Actors such as Lewis and DiCaprio choose more dramatic options not just because they retain significantly more influence than they would compared to a major Hollywood production, but because they also have the ability to hone their craft without the fear of studio pressure. They don’t have to sign multi-year contracts because once a project is done, they simply move on to the next one whenever they are ready. There is no need for them to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, because they already possess a very loyal and rewarding fan base. Ultimately, actors must make a choice as to whether they prefer being the face of smaller, more artistic projects, or having the ability to sell more tickets by being a part of a major Hollywood franchise.
Actors, for the most part, understand that the days in which big names such as Tom Cruise and Will Smith could carry a film to massive box office success are over. Significant financial achievement, however, can still be accomplished; although, it is up to an individual to decide if they want to follow the path of someone like Robert Downey Jr. and sign up for major Hollywood properties, or instead have artistic freedom and more control in a smaller, more dramatic niche such as Leonardo DiCaprio or Daniel Day-Lewis. Mark Wahlberg, for example, is a very popular actor who has never reached box office stardom on his own. However, Wahlberg’s achievement with Ted and impending success with Transformers: Age of Extinction proves that he understands how the current Hollywood system works for massive success, and he has chosen to go down the route of being a complement to a major franchise . He will definitely be a factor in convincing audiences to head out to the newest Transformers film, but the greatest selling point of robots destroying robots remains at the forefront. Therefore, the tagline of Wahlberg’s Transformers poster truly takes on a different meaning. Box office superstars are diminishing in front of our very eyes. There may never again be an actor who can match the incredibly lengthy and varied success of Tom Cruise, because ultimately, the rules of Hollywood have changed.
What do you think? Leave a comment.